Saturday, December 27, 2008

In praise of Jimmy Carter

In four years, Carter did more good than Reagan did in eight.

One of the more annoying aspects of the recently expired Republican hegemony in American politics was its odes to Ronald Reagan. Every candidate was a soldier of the Reagan revolution, every thing Reagan did was tinged with gold, and every opportunity was taken to add his name to airports, government buildings, etc.- we even came periously close to a Reagan dime!

But if one considers the actual issues and how they have turned out over time, this turns out to have been somewhat premature, to say the least. On such topics as winning the cold war, managing the economy, establishing energy independence, even advancing gay rights, Jimmy Carter was out ahead, and will come to be appreciated in the light of history as being not only on the right side of key issues, but also more effective.

First off, the Iran hostage crisis. Ultimately, it was not Carter's fault that the hostages were taken, or how they were treated. The time-honored protection of diplomats should have had special resonance in a traditional culture like that of Iran. The Iranians only besmirched their own position for decades to come by violating norms that they rely on, as do all other countries. On the other hand, it was the US which played the key role in installing and propping up the Shah (thanks to the Republican Eisenhower administration, after Truman refused British overtures on the issue), with the chickens coming home to roost on Carter's watch. The US was/is also the implicit guarantor of the entire international system, so Iran's breach of diplomatic behavior was a way to topple an apple cart that was in large part owned by the US, and would be seen that way around the world, fairly or not. Carter was caught in the news glare of a transfixed nation, and was also unwilling to negotiate with Iran on the base terms that Reagan may have pursued. The Iran-Contra affair later made clear just how corrupt Reagan's dealings with Iran were- not exactly a high point for US international relations.

In energy issues, it goes without saying that Carter was more foresighted and disciplined than Reagan, cardigan or no cardigan. Reagan let energy independence projects slide, let conservation effors slide, let fuel efficiency standards slide, not because the US had become more self-sufficient in energy, but because OPEC had collapsed as more production arrived from other foreign sources. This was never going to be a long-term solution, even in the absence of consciousness about global warming. Peak oil, though still a far-off concept, was surely a proper concern for policy makers, domestic production having peaked some time previously. It was poor policy to increase reliance on foreign oil supplies, most of them in countries with strategic, human rights, and other entangling problems (Russia, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, the entire Middle East).

With respect to Central and South America, the difference is again quite startling. Carter finished negotiations with Panama to sell the Panama canal, against heavy domestic opposition- a deal that has given us rich dividends in a stable canal and improved relations with the entire region. In contrast, Reagan pursued a proxy war with the Sandanistas and supported rightist thug-ocracies in Honduras, Guatamala and Panama (later to be cleaned up by George H. Bush). This amounted to reliving shades of Vietnam, and today, the Sandanistas are once again in power in Nicaragua through democratic means. On the other hand, Reagan's invasion of Grenada, gratuitous though it may have been, was warranted and provided that country a measure of stability after successive coups by Bishop and Coard.

In general economic policy, the overriding issue of the day was inflation. Inflation was finally slain by Paul Volcker, who was willing to turn the screws on interest rates until the money supply finally contracted. And who appointed Volcker? Jimmy Carter, mid-way through his presidential term. The price for this act of bravery and principle was the deep recession that brought Reagan into office. In contrast, Reagan took advantage of Carter's fiscal discipline by spending freely with deficits (called voodoo economics at the time)- giving unfunded tax cuts to the rich and building a cold-war military that we didn't need. This culture of profligate deficit spending for consumption rather than investment has continued to this day, exemplified by the current Bush administration. Indeed the whole tenor of Reaganism- hatred for effective government, business uber alles, deregulation, and supply-side trickle-down tax give-aways now is coming back to haunt us as the culture of borrowing and business "self-regulation" comes to a painful end.

Finally, the feather in the cap of the Reagan administration usually is given as winning the cold war. Who really won the cold war? Was it Kissinger/Nixon offering friendly detente with the one hand while playing the China card with the other? Was it Reagan with a bulked up military and dramatic talk about the evil empire? Was it Bush père, with his Aikido approach of letting the giant fall of its own weight? Or was it Carter, with his emphasis on human rights and principle in foreign policy? I think it goes without saying that Reagan's policies had very little to do with the collapse of the USSR. It collapsed from internal sclerosis and economic stasis, as well as the political/cultural vacuum of long-lapsed Marxism/Leninism. Indeed, Reagan's saber-rattling and proxy wars served here, as they generally do, to strengthen the targeted regime rather than weaken it. And as far as military strength is concerned, the USSR had, and Russia still has, more nuclear missiles than we do, however decrepit the rest of their military was at the time.

My bet for the most influential policy that brought down the Soviet Union was the focus on human rights and basic freedoms, first by the Helsinki accords, and then by the Carter administration. It was this policy that gave heart to Soviet dissidents like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, and which struck directly at the core of USSR's self-justification. If the people were poor, they might still appreciate egalatarian principles. If the state was corrupt, it was still a great state- a pluralistic nexus of many nations in the USSR and an empire of many more on its borders. But if the basic human values that the ideology of the USSR supposedly most valued were hollow, as was reluctantly admitted by Kruschev in the post-Stalin era, and on which the Helsinki accords continued to shine a light, with, for instance, the highly publicized defection of Jews, then what was left? What was the point of continuing to be in opposition to the liberal European/American mode of state and government, which had shown itself to be both prosperous and decent?

Of course later times have abundantly highlighted the basic decency and perspicacity of Jimmy Carter, including the honor of a Nobel peace prize. His current observations on the Palestinian question are particularly acute, proclaiming that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is shameful and akin to Apartheid. It is imperative that the Israelis be given some tough love. But I'd like to put my vote in to rehabilitate Carter's presidential legacy as well- to appreciate that his administration was one of our best, if not most popular at the time, with long-lasting benefits to the nation.

Incidental link to an obituary for Griffin Bell, another fine Carter appointment.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Son and Prophet

In praise of BlackSun and his blog

I've followed the blog of Sean Prophet for some time and recommend it as a fascinating view into the religious mind. Sean is the son of Mark and Elizabeth Prophet, founders of the Summit Lighthouse, also known as the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). This small cult was founded in 1958 by Mark in the theosophist and "I AM" (not to mention John Bircher) traditions, believing in a sort of ancestor worship, by way of "ascended masters" and truly bizarre incantations called decrees. Sean and his sister Erin were groomed to inherit the leadership, and were well educated. This education had the unintended consequence of making Sean an atheist, and he spends most of his blog plumbing the depths of the cult experience and religion in general. Thus his adopted nom de net of BlackSun. Erin has also left the cult and written a book on her story.

High points include Sean's general comments on belief and philosophy, an extensive narration on his father's role in the church, and numerous posts on the cult's extraordinary apocalypse prophecy and bomb shelter project, traceable to that vintage cult classic of John the Revelator.

Best wishes for the solstice and the holidays!

Nuclear evolution

Proteins of the nuclear pore share evolutionary origins with vesicle coat proteins, providing a fascinating glimpse into the origin of eukaryotes.

One of the great innovations of life, after its origin and after the establishment of DNA as the hereditary material, was the advent of the eukaryotic cell about 2 billion years ago. Eukaryotic cells have numerous internal structures like golgi, vesicles, cytoskeleton, mitochondria, a nucleus and sometimes chloroplasts, and have many other innovations like meiosis and very complex gene regulation. Their origin is believed to be from the union of a phagocytic bacterium with a mitochondrial precursor bacterium, but that is only a very crude picture, with very much unknown. Perhaps the proto-eukaryote was a rather cosmopolitan eater, incorporating quite a few innovations from other bacteria on its way to global hyperpower status.

The nuclear membrane has always been a source of mystery. A huge cellular compartment, pocked with large pores that block only large macromolecules, it completely disassembles during mitosis so that the cell can divide, then spontaneously reforms and resumes its functions. It separates transcription from translation, keeping the DNA inside, and allowing new RNAs to go through complex splicing, capping, and other modifications before they are transported out through the nuclear pores to the cytoplasm where ribosomes stand ready to translate their messages into protein.

The mechanism whereby nuclear pores control the passage of large molecules has recently been solved, and it is a fascinating story in itself- a novel phase of matter composed of phenylalanine (F) and glycine (G) protein residues that lets through nuclear-signal tagged proteins (with their own F-G regions) like knives through butter, but not other proteins without the magic tag, whether they be hydrophobic or hydrophilic.

Anyhow, the present paper is about the proteins that make up the structure of the nuclear pore- a huge (125 megaDalton; most proteins are in the 200 kiloDalton range) complex of proteins that makes the nuclear membrane look like a dimpled sponge, and manages the transport mentioned above. To do this, it has to hang on to the nuclear membrane, which is a membrane like any other in the cell. This paper presents an atomic structure of two of these pore proteins, Nup85 and Seh1, which form a complex with each other and, well, not much else is known about what they do, other than that if their genes are deleted, the pores are severely defective. So they have an important role in pore structure, of the ~30 or so different proteins that make up the pore complex.

This combined protein structure is a beautiful extended glob of Nup85 helices (blue and gold) whose end forms one blade of the Seh1 beta-propeller (green). It was already known that these proteins loosely resemble others of the nuclear pore, by detectable sequence similarity, and the structure is very similar indeed to the combination of pore proteins Nup145C and Sec13. Two lessons here- first, this is yet another instance of duplication and diversification of genes/information in evolution, which I explore further below, and second, that three-dimensional structures can reveal similarities that are minimal or absent in the one-dimensional protein sequence- also a common occurrence now that more structures are being solved. Such similarities arise from common ancestry, which can be so distant that each of the amino acids in the protein sequence may have changed, but in such a way that the overall structure remains roughly the same. Beta propeller structures like that of Seh1 are common in other areas of the cell, expecially in signalling and transcriptional control, since they are great platforms for interacting with other proteins.

This structure showed similarity to other and more distant proteins as well- those involved in vesicle formation of a type termed "clathrin-coated vesicles" like Sec31 (the name "Nup" comes from NUclear Pore, and "Sec" comes from SECretion, which is defective in "Sec" mutants). Vesicles are the tiny transport vehicles that ferry materials (like neurotransmitters in neurons, or insulin in pancreatic beta cells) from the golgi to the outside of the cell, and likewise ingest material from outside the cell by budding in from the outer membrane, powered, in part, by their clathrin coats, which contain Sec13 and Sec31.

On closer inspection of the literature, this relationship is not exactly news, since Sec13 was already known to function both in the nuclear pore and in vesicle secretion (though it is not nearly as essential to nuclear pore structure as is Nup85), yet all the same, the close structural relationship of multiple components of the nuclear pores and secretory vesicles was news to me and the special focus in this article- the first one to tie this story together so broadly. [Ed note: no, see Devos et al, for prior work, per comment received below. This includes the proposal that generic vesicle trafficking preceded nucleus formation.] These proteins interact by binding to each other end-to-end on the Nup85 end, and binding to other proteins on the other end (Seh1, in this case). The whole thing is very stiff, thanks to all the helical cross-members. These proteins do not directly contact the membrane, but use adapter proteins to interface with it.

Thus there is a common, if distantly related, structural motif used in at least two places in the cell. A sort of stiff structural spanning member with tinker toy-like ends used as scaffolds for membranes. In one case (the secretion system) it helps form small vesicles that dynamically bud into and out of the outer membrane. In the other case, we can guess with some confidence (following the authors) that these proteins hold onto the membrane of the nuclear envelope, anchoring the rest of the nuclear pore. Indeed, the authors develop a quite detailed model of how 16 copies of Nup85+Seh1, combined with various numbers of the Nup85 homologs Nup84, Nup145C, Nic96, combined with a few other proteins, could account for the entire inner barrel scaffold of the nuclear pore.

It is apparent that useful innovations do not go unrewarded in evolution, and may generate a diversity of offspring in the form of related proteins that originate from accidental copies of the first version, diversifying and specializing over time. There are many other cases like this, such as the 851 copies of olfactory receptor genes in humans (many defunct), or the 800 plus genes encoding GPCR signalling proteins in humans, or the 700-odd zinc finger DNA-binding regulatory proteins, to name a few of the most prolific.

The set of innovations that led to eukaryotes involved a great deal of membrane management, with several eventual compartments involving assembly, growth, targetting and transit of materials, disassembly, signalling about status, etc. If one structural motif could be used for the basic task of holding on to membranes with a consistent yet reversable shape, it was likely to be used for many such tasks before gene duplication allowed specialization to occur. This also indicates that certain internal membrane systems like the nucleus, endoplasmic reticulum, and golgi/vesicle systems did not arise from separate symbiotic incorporations of other bacteria, unlike the mitochondrion, which does not use Sec31/Nup85-like proteins, as far as I can determine, while having a variety of its own membrane proteins, some traceable to its own bacterial ancestor.

PS- One may ask whether this work addresses the question of which came first- trafficking vesicles or nuclei. No, it doesn't, since it only ties these structures (or at least key parts of them) into a common genealogy. There are a couple of ways to look for answers, though. One is to compare more constituents of these structures, especially those that are specific to each. These may have histories that tie them to other cellular milestones that can give relative timings. For instance, nuclei have lamin proteins and outer pore proteins that may be derived from other cell constituents that are more recent, indicating that the fully elaborated nucleus came later than the simpler vesicles. Unfortunately, this approach is unlikely to give definitive answers, since so much uncertainty attaches to what parts of an organelle were developed when, and which were originally the most important ones.

Another way is to look for existing organisms that have one or the other organelle- either vesicles without nuclei, or the reverse. So little is known about microorganisms that this is not a vain quest. There have been eukaryotic protists found without mitochondria, for instance, which were thought to be primitive and argue for the late incorporation of the endosymbiont. Later, however, these parasites (like Giardia) were found to have numerous mitochondrial genes in their nuclear genomes and have other molecular abnormalities, indicating that they previously had mitochondria which they lost in the mean time, being able to survive without them in food-rich host tissues. Since the history of life is a wildly diversifying bush rather than a ladder, there are many organisms that retain primitive states and are doing quite well, thank you ... like the amazingly vast diversity of bacteria, the proto-chordate sea quirt, the proto-vertebrate hagfish, the platypus, etc.

My speculative bet is that, the proto-eukaryote being putatively a phagocytic amoeba-like organism, having an endocytic and exocytic vesicle system would have been a good bet to be an early feature, with elaboration of nuclei happening later as the rewards of doing extra regulatory steps of RNA maturation, or just protecting the DNA from the occasional loose food item, prompted the gradual segregation of DNA into a nucleus using pre-existing cell components.

Economics and biology

A Victoria's Secret catalog gets me thinking about economic stimulation, credit, and regulation.

At this time of hair-raising de-leveraging, the going joke is that "We found the WMD's!". This came up in an excellent piece by Henry Blodget in the Atlantic. But I'd like to suggest a different metaphor- that of cancer, another syndrome of defective regulation/intelligence. Blodget takes the position that the system (and human nature) is built to forget the past, so whatever we learn now will inevitably go up in smoke, in the excitement of the next bull/bubble market. Just as competition is the life blood of economic activity and its associated ills, so selection is the lifeblood of biology, and its associated ills such as cancer.

Over evolutionary time, our cells have acquired ornate mechanisms of growth regulation, so that they divide like hell's bells early on, producing a baby from one cell in nine months, but then slow to a crawl, or in the case of many cells like neurons, enter complete stasis, not dividing at all while doing the work of adulthood. There are many controls over cellular decisions like responding to local damage, living amicably with one's neighbors, and whether to divide, culminating in the most extreme solution to all three- cell suicide, called apoptosis.

The most well-known example of such a regulator is p53, a protein which is positioned at a central nexus, receiving signals about damage to DNA, chemical stresses, and other problems that might warrent holding up cell division or even committing hari kari. When signalled, it binds to various genes on the DNA and turns them on to execute the program of either shutting down cell division (p21/CDK complex), or shutting down the cell completely (Bax/caspases).

Through the inexorable process of natural selection, some cells will find a way around the commands to stop growing or to destroy themselves. They may have DNA damage to the very genes, like p53, that provide that regulation, or their defect may generate vast over-expression of pro-growth signals that become immune to countervailing influences. This is cancer, and it takes several defects in the regulatory system to allow such over-growth to develop.

Is that starting to sound familiar? The financial system is set up with its own selective imperatives, foremost of which is to make money. Once a bull market gets going, as Blodget relates, the naysayers tend to be wrong year after year after year, lose money, and get sidelined. Cheerleaders such as Blodget himself during the internet stock boom, and real estate agents parrotting the mantras of "real estate never goes down" hold the floor while the music is playing and the disease is getting worse. And worst of all, regulators like the Fed are also overtaken with deregulatory zeal, even in cases like Ben Bernanke, who despite being a student of the great depression promoted the idea that regulators had no role in preventing bubbles, but can only hope to clean up after them. The regulatory systems become compromised, and the disease spreads until the music finally stops, and everyone scurries for cover. Thankfully, this disease is not terminal, but it is still extremely painful, and worth trying to prevent.

I think that throwing up our hands in the face of this process (as Blodget fatalistically does) is not acceptable. Biology labors against a far more difficult problem, there being billions years of evolution that went into the cellular control mechanisms that keep us (mostly) alive through reproductive age. We ask medical research to win the "war on cancer", but are we to ask no more of economists than to accede to human psychology, and let wealth and productivity wither periodically for the freedom of the financial markets to engage in speculative excess?

One template to look at is bank regulation. Banks in their regulated aspects did quite well during this crisis- it was the unregulated derivatives, hedge funds, and wildly overleveraged "investment" banking that collapsed, with the remaining investment houses ironically seeking protection by taking the form of regulated banks. Banking regulation restricts leverage to about 1:10, as well as restricting the targets of that leverage- collateralized loans in such things as real estate or businesses with whose operations the bank has some, if not thorough, familiarity. In combination with modest deposit insurance and other guarantees from the government, this makes for a quite stable system.

The amazing thing was that the Fed, other regulators, and congress decided that other actors in the system that made far riskier loans (to speculators in financial markets) could be far more highly leveraged, (1:50 or above), since the government was not directly on the hook through deposit insurance or other guarantees. Even the LTCM collapse did not warn Greenspan and others that this leverage is a disease that could bring down the entire system, while not offering much public good in return. It is, simply, a genteel form of gambling with very, very large amounts of borrowed money.

So, in a rational world, we would have a regulator with general responsibilities to limit leverage, allowing the most leverage in closely regulated and beneficial institutions (banks), while allowing less (instead of more) in speculative and more lightly regulated institutions. Indeed, it has always mystified me why margin accounts at brokerages are allowed at all- borrowing to buy stocks is the surest way to increase market volatility. There is nothing wrong with speculation, which plays an important role in market efficiency, but lending someone money to speculate is like playing Russian roulette, not just for the speculator and the lender, but for the markets and the economy as a whole.

A general leverage regulator is needed because, like the cancer process, financial markets are endlessly inventive (aka "innovative") at devising new ways to gamble. Mutations and lapses in attention will always occur, so that formal rules will always be out of date. No regulatory system is perfect, just as nobody is completely immune to cancer, but we can learn from history and do better, on a speedier time frame than that of evolution. The Fed is ideally positioned to be this regulator, and should have the function of restricting all kinds of leverage added to its portfolio of regulating banks, keeping the currency stable, and promoting sustainable economic growth.

While I am at it, let me throw out several more pieces of an economic reform program, though this is mostly oriented to the car bailout and general economic mess, not the financial industry specifically.
  • Health care: Relieve businesses of the administrative burden of health care by nationalizing it, as per the pending Obama plans, or something more adventurous like single-payer. Businesses should not shop around for younger employees because they are cheaper to insure. Employees should not depend on employers to provide health care. Incidentally, one step towards cost control could be to revise the FDA approval process to have two levels of approval- one basic level for safety and efficacy, as is done now, and a second level for demonstrated cost/benefit advantage over the current standard of care. One cause of rising health care costs (aside from the absurd duplication and expense of private care insurers/deniers) is that new treatments are not put through a rigorous benefit analysis. Drug and device companies relentlessly push marginal products through the approval process, then devote vast sums to advertise them for benefits that are often absent or minimal.
  • Pensions: Businesses should likewise be relieved of the administrative burden and cost inequality of pensions, switching to a nationalized program combining a beefed-up social security with government-run 401K funds. Nowhere is the burden of retirement provisioning more apparent than in the domestic car industry. With roughly 2 or 3 retirees for every worker, they are groaning under this burden, and every sensible program to downsize them in accordance with their self-managed decline in market share makes this ratio even worse. Pensions for all companies (and government entities, which are likewise facing financial chaos from their pension obligations) should be immediately nationalized, so that each employer pays a set tax rate per current employee (like the social security system, only not capped by maximum income). This could be a mix of defined benefits as a safety net and an optional 401K-like account with the government, offering a few selections of risk. Then all retirees, including those not employed (such as housewives, for instance) would get a mix of defined benefits and invested returns that are partially tied to their contributions and former income, and partially set as a safety net not dependent on prior work at all. This would allow older companies with many retirees to compete on a level playing field with new startups, give all citizens the assurance of retirement income whether or not they worked or were married to a worker, and allow workers to switch jobs without fear of losing their pension.
  • Unions: I support greater unionization, but unions impose costs as well, especially when they are too successful in gaining income and working (or non-working) condition benefits. Unions should organize downtrodden farmworkers and janitors, not dictate no-work jobs, antiquated labor-intensive technologies, and 100K/year longshoreman salaries. My proposal would be that unions be prohibited from representing anyone over the national median income. This would put higher-salaried workers into the regular job market, instead of an artifically negotiated system. What would this do to NBA players? I am not sure- Insofar as management has monopoly power, in this case congressionally sanctioned, workers should likewise be able to organize. However the government's role should generally be to break monopolies, not sanction them.
  • Executive pay: The salaries of many corporate and investment managers have been clearly excessive and economically detrimental, motivating them to find beneficial option sale and exit strategies rather than building better companies. Salaries should be capped at 25X the median salary of the managed corporation including subsidiaries. Extra income should be restricted to a new kind of stock option granted on a five year plan, where the grant price is the mean price for the current year, and the options can be redeemed only after five years, at the mean stock price of the trailing year. This would go a long way to re-aligning the interests of management with those of employees and stockholders. There would be no private pensions, parachutes, etc. One interesting side-effect of this proposal would be to motivate management teams to separate themselves from the underlying base companies so that they could be paid more. But since they would have separated rather than subsidiary relationships, this might open a new market for management services, which might enable corporate boards to bid more effectively for these services, enhancing competition and keeping prices down.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Consciousness update

A recent scientific review lays out what is known about consciousness.

With convenient timeliness, Science magazine published a lengthy review of the state of consciousness research, within a standout issue devoted to behavioral genetics. Unfortunately, the review begins: "How consciousness arises from the brain remains unknown". Nevertheless the basic analytic approach of investigating variations in a phenomenon upon perturbation has yielded a wealth of clues about how the mind happens. I will use "mind" to denote the subjective experience which has been so difficult to explain scientifically and philosophically.

Minds turn off during deep sleep, then back on during dream sleep and during waking. They turn off again during the super-activation of epileptic seizures. The mental on state correlates with the complexity of brain wave (EEG) patterns, where deep sleep is characterized by a low complexity pattern (delta wave) of slow and regular on, off alternating at four cycles per second or less. This state also appears to be the default state of the cortex, when in a coma or when otherwise lacking the activating functions of the reticular activating system in the brain stem. Waking is a noisy condition with jumbled, higher-frequency waves (15 to 40 cycles per second- gamma waves), and then epilepsy is characterized by everything firing at once- again a low complexity state. Many variations on these states are achievable by drugs, whether professionally or recreationally applied. Many more variations appear after physical damage, such as from strokes, trauma, neurosurgery, etc.

It looks like brain waves are somewhat like the cloud of radio waves from radio stations, where signal complexity is a sign of information, and a repetitive test signal, or flat-lining, or hyperactive noise, are each degradations of that signal- a loss of information. If we knew how to decipher the signals, would we be able to peek into someone's mind? It is not at all clear that they would be decipherable in that way. The broadcast nature of brainwaves, while convenient for us to measure on the scalp, is not their real role- the EEG signal is merely a messy side-effect of activity in the many neurons going back and forth between specific locations in the brain.

It is in the rapid signaling between a large number of specific places where one would have to look for correlates of the mind. Indeed the leading theory regards complex waking gamma-wave states as reflections of transient coalitions of active brain regions, bound together in cleverly time-compressed neuronal gamma-pattern firing (the actual neuronal firings, not the waves we detect on the scalp). This is suggested by Gyorgy Buzsaki in his magisterial review of brain waves (especially Cycle 9: The gamma buzz: gluing by oscillations in the waking brain, which addresses the binding problem of consciousness). In this way, anatomical localization of activity, which is very well characterized by now, (another article in this issue uses fMRI scans of subject brains to peek into and predict speech and speaker identification to a remarkably accurate degree, based on location of brain activity ), could be melded together into what we experience as a unitary mind.

Anatomically, regions of the brain are involved in consciousness to various degrees. Small lesions in the thalamus can induce immediate coma, whereas frontal lobotomies have much less effect, and lesions in the cerebellum little to none. This review argues very plausibly that the middle region of the brain, comprising medial cortex on the outer brain, and thalamic core below it, serves as a sort of central nexus in terms of connectivity of the brain, and likewise has the most central role in consciousness. For instance, the visual processing system is arranged hierarchically from V1 to V5, where V1 is most closely connected to input from the retinas (firing with and representing simple features of the visual scene, such as light at a specific coordinate), and never contributes to consciousness directly, while the neurons in V5 represent complex aspects that do enter consciousness directly, like the identity of objects and faces. The orientation of the visual cortex places the V1 areas at the back of the head and V5 areas closest to the middle mind-relevant features mentioned above.

The review also promotes a rather vague theory about information and complexity, where data integration over large regions (roughly measured by brain waves), and discrimination between many alternative states, is the key measure of any process that can be called consciousness. For instance, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can be used to directly activate brain regions. If this is done on someone deep in deep non-REM sleep, the result is a localized and brief low-frequency wave. In contrast, TMS on the waking brain stimulates complex wave responses that propagate far and wide through the rest of the brain, resounding for twice as much time. The paper does not relate what thoughts TMS induces in waking subjects, but other studies indicate that it induces flashes of light or other random perceptions depending on what region of the brain is being stimulated, similar to what is generated by migraines. So, though there are more and less relevant areas of the brain, consciousness still seems to be a distributed phenomenon, as indeed one might guess from the vast amount of information it subjectively integrates.

This is all of special interest to anesthesiologists, who are in charge of managing body control, pain, and consciousness. The review mentions many variations that can occur- patients that suddenly wake up during anesthesia, low doses of anesthetics that induce out-of-body experiences and depersonalization, low doses that generate amnesia and unresponsiveness despite consciousness still being present in some form. The immediate problem is that there are currently no perfect measures of consciousness per se, and anesthesiologists are naturally anxious to have one. What everyone is sure of, however, is that when brain waves cease entirely, the patient is dead- to the world, if not permanently.

Another clear conclusion is that consciousness is graded- that we can, under the influence of brain damage, exotic drugs, or just plain alcohol or sleepiness, experience vastly different amounts of consciousness. Indeed, we love exploring these altered states, consuming coffee, coca, chocolate, or riding in roller coasters for stimulation, while taking heroin, alcohol, barbiturates, or meditating for tranquilization (among many other options, like marijuana and LSD). Each of these variations are clearly connected to physical alterations in the brain. The graded-ness of consciousness has significant implications, especially for the moral status of other conscious beings. Obviously, animals such as dogs experience consciousness- perhaps not quite as exquisitely as we do, but richly nonetheless, especially in the smell department. Thus there is a graded order of beings that deserve our sensitive attention due to their consciousness, especially their capacity for conscious suffering. Conversely, human embryos are not conscious, and nor are fetuses up to some mid-stage in gestation (roughly five months), which informs our moral duties towards them as independent, conscious beings.

In view of all these detailed connections between mind, consciousness, and the brain, it should be exceedingly difficult to imagine that consciousness can exist in any form after death. Putting another nail in the coffin, as it were, will be a study that tests the hypothesis that out-of-body (or near-death) experiences reflect separation from the body. Operating rooms have been set up with upward-facing images on high shelves- items that would only be visible to someone floating above. Patients who have out-of-body experiences will then be asked about these, which will test whether their sensory selves are floating as they subjectively appear to, or whether they are strictly confined to the operating table- to what they can hear and what they have seen, either before or after the operation. We will see. My bet is that our sense of hearing is extremely sensitive and capable of painting a rich picture of what is going on outside, accounting for the various anecdotal accounts of uncanny perception while having out-of-body sensations, much like it does in half-asleep states.

All this presents a further question- if consciousness is eventually nailed down to brain functions, as it seems certain to be, does that present any philosophical problems, either for free will or for the efficacy of reason? For free will, how can we be truly free in our choices if our mind is strictly subject to material cause and effect? And similarly for reason, how can our reason be an impartial judge and guide if it arises from such an inherently compromised and contingent substrate as the brain?

In the first place, our free will is a good deal less free than we suppose, as advertisers and tobacco companies know so well. We are influenced all the time, thus the desperation of theists to maintain their influence. Secondly, our conscious ignorance of most influences (in addition to a big helping of randomness in the system) amounts to free will- a will that has no obvious origin and which makes decisions based on reason, or impulse, or whatever happens to come to mind. That can make psychological investigations threatening. If we expose reasons for our heretofore "free" actions, whether cast in the languages of complexes, archetypes, psychodynamics, parental influences, memes, consumerism, etc., we are less "free" insofar as these interpretations are true. Nothing has changed, but our view of ourselves is altered, and we may become more "self-conscious", which means ... more suspicious about our so-called free will.

This may be one of the deeper reasons for theist antipathy towards knowledge in general, which one might see as impairing our natural, reflexive engagement with the world (not to mention religious authority). Whether it is the knowledge given by the fruit of the tree of life, carnal knowledge, critical historical knowledge of their own texts, biological knowledge, or psychological self-knowledge, this hostility is quite remarkable. Scientologists take the prize in this last department for quite understandable reasons with their vitriolic campaign against psychology, while they simultaneously peddle their own pseudo-psychology of "clearing" and dianetics.

So is reason itself futile? If thoughts all have causes, many of them less than noble, let alone free of outside influence, how can reason operate at all? I think one can ask the same of a hand-held calculator. Does it provide reliable answers, despite its inner workings being fully understood? At best, human reason is a similarly general tool, which we can apply to any problem, and, given sufficient discipline, get robust answers from. Such is the case with mathematical proofs, where all steps can be written down, going their leisurely way from premises to conclusions. In more nebulous realms such as philosophy and ethics, each step is fraught with subjective interpretations, so the framework of reason is less in evidence, if it is present at all. It falls to critics to make that framework and its defects or successes as explicit as possible. The success of science has hinged on making its reasoning about the natural world as explicit and open as possible, thereby making useful critique possible, especially in the form of the acid tests of reality- experiment and evidence.

Incidental links:
  • Related podcast on Hume and reason.
  • Podcast on blind sight, phantom limbs, alien hands, body sense, mirror neurons, and extra senses, in a philosophical context.
  • Death of HM, the man who had complete amnesia due to damage to his hippocampus.

Even more incidentally, we happen to be getting to the end of War and Peace, where, on the very last page, Leo Tolstoy makes essentially the same argument about free will as I make above (translation by Rosemary Edmonds):
As with astronomy the difficulty in the way of recognizing that the earth moves consisted in having to rid oneself of the immediate sensation that the earth was stationary accompanied by a similar sense of the planets' motion, so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to the laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one's personal impression of being independent of those laws. But as in astronomy the new view said: "True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws", likewise in history the new theory says: "True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we are to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality we arrive at laws."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Against theology

In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless.
-William James, 1902

As I have engaged in debates on theism, I have been fascinated by the existence of theology. Believing in religion is bad enough, but to make a career of offering up absurd rationalizations and hairsplittings in its defense, in tomes of unread pablum, is surely worse (Ed note- and who, exactly, do you think reads this blog?). There are many sub-disciplines of theology of varying delusion, ranging from church history, biblical exegesis, and historical criticism, to the apologetics and dogmatics (even pneumatology!) that I focus on here.

My model of religion (following Carl Jung and William James, and consistent with contemporary evidence) is that it expresses vital psychological dynamics generated by the unconscious, which has personal, cultural, and universal components. The unconscious does not need to template itself to reality as the conscious mind does- it fantasizes, wishes, and dreams (and motivates). It is free from constraints of time and space, generating inchoate ideas of the supernatural. Religion is the practice whereby people coordinate their inner worlds into numinous social, philosophical, ethical, artistic, and therapeutic communities, seizing on key symbols to express the inexpressible.

If this were all, it would not be so bad, but the typical practice is to believe that the symbol is not a symbol, but is real- that divinity is not a metaphor but the personal description of a prophet, that the father in heaven is not a symbol of transcendence and life, but an actual ruler, comforter, and judge, and that the world itself, instead of being what it is, is something else, created by the father figure and destined to some apocalyptic end, hopefully imminent, followed by personal immortality. Religions make supernatural phenomena a focus- even a test- of adherence, bonding members by communal dreams. These projections of the unconscious are natural and numinous, but of course have nothing to do with outer reality. Indeed their whole power comes from their disagreement with outer reality- the more preposterous the better, as exemplified by miracles.

This error is carried to great lengths by those who devote their waking moments and mental energies to justifying the dreamscape that is religion, posing putatively rational arguments and sophistry of all kinds to ward off the suspicion that their emperor not only has no clothes, but no reality at all. Since all honest theists acknowledge that the mystery of faith is at its root inexplicable and irrational (gloriously so), it seems odd that there is a class of people employed to find just the opposite. Strange, but humans come in different kinds, and some operate on a more conscious, ego-driven level than others, feeling the mystic impulse, (one hopes), but unwilling to give up reason. They must find ways to rationalize the irrational, to square the circle.

One simple sign of the oddity of theology is its parochial nature. Science, art, and technology are international- one discovery is the world's discovery- universally appreciated, applied, and added to the growing corpus. No special efforts at ecumenical science need be hammered out across fractious borders. Religion, on the other hand, has as its criterion traditions of psychological symbolism that are often recognizable by all, but are also culturally specific, sometimes requiring prodigious feats of indoctrination and credulity. It is all too easy for one tradition to dismiss the absurd beliefs of its rivals, a very modest skepticism being sufficient to render biting, dismissive, and accurate critiques. How odd, then, that the beam in one's own eye should be so invisible!

Yet so it is, and schools of theology of all kinds press on to organize, categorize, and systematize what is inherently artistic and irrational- what should never have been taken literally in the first place.

Incidental links:

A philosophy podcast interviews theologian (or possibly ex-theologian!) and fellow-biophilic Don Cupitt, apropos of this blog entry.

Roger Ebert reviews Ben Stein, ID, and Expelled.

PS: Apropos cartoon

A couple more quotes from William James, from The Varieties of Religious Experience:
I believe, in fact, that the logical reason of man operates in this field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any of the other wider affairs of life, in which our passions our our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand. It finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it can not now secure it.
The pivot round which the religious live, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in this private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Of mice and men

Recent research shows that the difference between humans and mice arises mostly from differences in the DNA of transcriptional control regions.

It has long been known that we are genetically not very different from other mammals- 98% identical to Chimpanzees, 85% identical to mice. Indeed, there are many genes that we share to a recognizable extent with bacteria. So how do the evident differences in our characters come about? Experts in evolution and molecular biology have long suspected that differences in encoded proteins are less likely to be the leading cause of differences than are differences in how they are controlled. A new piece of work illustrates this concept nicely.

The article by Wilson et al. in Science (with a review- subscription needed for full access) demonstrates what happens when you place human chromosome #21 into a mouse and ask whether its patterns of gene control / expression resemble that of the similar regions of the mouse genome (mostly chromosome #16), or that of the human chromosome in human cells, or whether it is different from each.

If mouse proteins have changed significantly from human proteins in the ~80 to 100 million years since our divergence, then a human chromosome placed in mouse cells should show a unique pattern of proteins binding to it- certainly different from that in human cells, and probably different from their pattern on the similar (homologous) mouse genes. Recall that DNA is inert in cells until proteins bind to it- proteins that locate genes and tell those genes to turn on or off at specific times and places. We already know that the DNA sequences in between genes are far more variable over evolutionary time than the DNA in the protein-coding regions of genes. That is a key empirical finding of bioinformatics. Coding regions are far denser with information, and changing a protein sequence is more damaging (in selective terms) than tinkering with upstream control regions, let alone non-gene regions that neither code for anything nor control the expression of anything.

What they found was that the pattern of protein binding to the human DNA was ~90% the same as it was in human cells. Likewise, the pattern of gene expression was highly correlated (R~0.9) between the same chromosome in mouse (red graphs in the drawing, from Coller and Kruglyak) or in human cells (purple graph). The message is that those mouse proteins that bind to human chromosome 21 and control its gene expression have changed very little in the tens of millions of years of our divergence from mice, and rather the differences between us arise from differences in the control DNA itself- control that recapitulates roughly as well in mouse cells as in human cells, when directed by the human DNA.

DNA sequence patterns used for gene control are very distinct from those used to code for proteins. The coding region is a linear triplet progression of codons, each coding for one amino acid. If any one is out of register, the whole resulting protein sequence is thrown off, since ribosomes read off the code in strict three-by-three steps. And if the identity of one codon is off, the function of the resulting protein in whatever it does may be changed, often disastrously.

In contrast, DNA sequences used to control genes (typically within a few thousand bases of the coding sequence) are small, degenerate, and modular. They are typically only six to ten bases long, like CCCAGCCCC, which binds the famous regulatory protein SP1. Variations are common, (indeed, it is often extremely difficult to determine what the optimal binding sequence for such proteins actually is), and have subtle effects on the binding and activity of the regulatory protein. These sequences (also called binding sites) can also be relocated, mixed and matched in the gene control region (typically upstream relative the the coding region) with relatively little effect. One gene is often regulated by multiple control regions, each composed of several individual binding sites and each with a different role, such as activating the gene's activity in separate organs, or different times of development.

The upshot is that gene control regions are eminently "evolvable". Duplications of control regions have minimal immediate effects and allow the generation of new patterns of control. Alterations of individual binding sites or alterations of site arrangements are likely to alter only a small aspect of gene expression, such as in one stage of development or an uptick in amount produced, in contrast to protein mutations, which affect the action of the encoded protein at all times and everywhere.

It was already well known that most proteins are very well conserved between mouse and man. Indeed, of the 25,000 or so proteins encoded by each species, only about 100 to 200 fail to have detectable homologs in the other species. It is routine to express proteins from one species (human) in the other (mouse) to study their native function, and indeed to express specifically mutated forms to create models of human diseases in transgenic mice. What was not fully appreciated was the scale of conservation, such that these authors find that huge swaths of one human chromosome are handled in mouse cells essentially as they would be in human cells.

A metaphor for the genome might be a giant pipe organ, where each gene is a key. Over evolutionary time, the keys change very little, but the music played changes more dramatically, programmed as it is by the highly mutable control elements.

This picture indicates that solving the very difficult problem of predicting gene control from known DNA sequence (given knowledge about the binding preferences of control proteins and their activities in regulating gene expression) is even more important than previously suspected, since it would not only allow us to model the gene control circuitry of cells and organisms accurately, but would allow us to model evolutionary history with unprecedented detail and insight as well.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

More "gibberish"

I review samples of a review of my review of the book "Naturalism".

The correspondent (Darrell Lackey) who originally suggested that I read a book on philosophical naturalism was (not surprisingly) disappointed with my treatment of it, and sent an eight-page rebuttal of my review, which I will attempt to sample and respond to here. Doubtless I was far too prone to indulge in ridicule over reasoned analysis, my only defense being that I saw far more humor than reason in the book, which was stultifyingly boring.

Here is a quote from Crick:

“The Astonishing Hypothesis is the “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice may have phrased it: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can be truly called astonishing.” (Pg. 22)

Do you agree?
Yes, entirely- both with the hypothesis, and with the difficulty that many people have with it, though I personally do not have such problems. Crick was truly one of the greatest scientists of all time, a far better authority than the authors under discussion, I dare say. Here he was being dramatic to sell his book by this title.

... More importantly, you failed to even address the huge problems with such a view—or why you think there are no problems with such a view.

For instance, the authors write:
“Given the assault of strict naturalism on the very core of our natural view of ourselves, what is one to say about it? One argument against strict naturalism would be to maintain that the view is self-defeating: its proponents believe it is true, whereas if the view is true, then there ultimately is no such thing as believing it is true because there ultimately are no psychological events of any kind, period.” (Pg. 26)

Why didn’t you address this basic problem?
I did not address it because what they pose is absurd and not a problem. It is like saying that if we understand the microbial causes of disease, then we will no longer suffer from disease. Or better yet, only those who understand this principle will no longer suffer from such diseases! It appears to be an example of magical thinking.

In this case, the authors posit that those who believe in the naturalistic, mechanistic foundation of consciousness would not have any psychological events. I think that even you would find that hard to agree with. I certainly have never discounted psychological events, and nor does any scientist who studies the mind or brain. We have only posited that they are explicable in a mechanistic framework, along with everything else in the real world. You (and perhaps the authors) may be confused by the problem of mental causation, which is indeed an issue for dualist theories with soul-body interaction, but not for materialists.

Some materialists may have gotten carried away with reductionist rhetoric to the point of saying that thoughts are nothing but ... packs of active neurons ... just as one might say that photosynthesis is nothing but the transfer of a few electrons, or vision is nothing but a set of parallel computations by lots of connected neurons. That is (temporarily) mistaking the trees for the forest.

(from the book...)
"Hence, it does not seem the least bit implausible to say that a soul's thinking, choosing, experiencing pain, etc., are explainable in terms of its having the power to think and choose and exercising them, and its having the capacity to experience pain and its being actualized." (p.69).

If you don’t understand what is being communicated, just say so—don’t blame the authors—they are, after all, dealing with a very complex subject. If you think the areas being discussed in the above quotes could have been written better, then break it down for us in plain English and tell us where they are wrong. I do not see a single problem in the area of logic anywhere in the above quotes if understood in context. Why don’t you point the logic errors out for us?
I had not thought that the vacuity of this statement needed any explanation, actually. I guess it has long been a staple of theology to "explain" phenomena by positing "capacities" and "powers" that are delicately left unspecified and unplumbed. All I can say is that this mode of argument is totally empty. The only explanation that does any work is one with identifiable pieces that contribute logically to the phenomenon you are trying to explain. Not to mention that it also must have some connection with reality by way of empirical test.

(more from the book, same argument):
"In response, Sosa might claim that no Cartesian who (for the reasons cited in the previous paragraph) thinks he is a nonspatial entity can reasonably believe that he causally interacts with a certain physical body, without also having a knowledge of a noncausal pairing relation in which he stands to that body and that makes it causally accessible to him. It seems to us, however, that such a claim is not more obvious than the nonobvious claim that a spatial relation is a necessary condition of causal interaction between two entities." (p.64).
This statement typifies an idiosyncratic terminology with little point behind it. The authors were trying to figure out how souls can be associated with bodies while having no physical extent, or discernable connection (the pineal gland hypothesis having been discarded some time ago), or indeed discernable nature whatsoever. Here they are simply weaving fantasies- there is no evidence for non-causal pairing relations (which create causal accessibility, no less!) other than conceptual ones we ourselves imagine. There is also no evidence for non-spatial entities- the entire edifice of supernatural propositions is purely imaginary, whether the terms used are abstrusified like "non-spatial entities", or described forthrightly as souls, angels, or Santa Claus. Lastly, there is the reference to "obviousness", which, given the racked terminology, is an affront to the reader, doubly so given the kind of "plausibility" arguments tossed around elsewhere (noted above). If they knew what they were talking about, they could and would have been far clearer.

You forget that the process of choosing, of deliberating, are acts of a mental kind. I don’t think you understand what the authors are claiming. The authors are not saying that naturalists are unaware that thoughts, emotions, daydreams, fantasies, or what have you, exist in their minds. What the authors are pointing out is that according to the naturalist, in the area of the causal explanations of believing- such can never be linked to other mental events like apprehensions and other believings. It is a certain type of mental content/process that is being discussed here:

“In many (but not all) cases, believings (formation of beliefs) are causally explained by apprehending (being aware of) and believing mental contents such as (a) propositions and (b) the logical entailment relationships that obtain among them.” (Pg. 118)

Why didn’t you attempt to deal with their syllogism on page 119?

i. Every effect event is caused only by nonmental events (this is just a statement of the stronger principle endorsed by strict naturalism).

ii. Believing that strict naturalism is true is a mental effect event.

iii. Believing that strict naturalism is true is caused only by nonmental events.
First, the language here is poor- all this believing, entailment, and obtaining is murky, either purposefully or at any rate irremediably, since if they really knew what they were talking about, they would be clearer, as noted above.

Secondly, the first statement of the syllogism is their straw man, not mine. It is false. The nature of mental events is that they can cause each other, and can be stored and recalled at later times, creating a vast matrix of cause and effect relations from the development of the brain, through childhood, to the current thread of thought that one might have in one's head, which even you would appreciate is not a single mental event, but a continuous stream of them, buttressed by an even vaster flow of unconscious mental events. It is true that ultimately, mental events are traceable to outside causes such as sensory data and the genetic code that generates brain structure. But there is room for plenty of interior events twixt these outside causes and any particular mental event, such as a belief.

What strict naturalism means is that all mental events correspond to physical events, which have physical causes, which could all be determined (conceptually, at least) going back in time. I certainly have no problem with mental events. The author's statements to the contrary made no sense, as did so much of what they wrote- they seemed to be misreading the literature, or else be focusing on the poorest rhetorical arguments made by naturalists (if their foils even are naturalists.. see below).

And your own argument is even more murky- "... such can never be linked to other mental events ..." -what on earth does that mean? The whole point of neurobiology is to determine the linkage among mental/physical events, where signals come in through the eyes (to take one example), proceed to the back of the head visual areas, then progressively up the processing ladder of the visual system until they arrive as qualia in the as yet mysterious consciousness, and so forth. Linkage is what this is all about, and to assert that links can never be made- between two beliefs, or between two other mental events- flies in the face of evidence- from brain scanning, from strokes and other defects, etc.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“Secondly, note the obeisance to "ordinary understanding", which is often mentioned as the author's touchstone. This is exactly what science and reason labors to improve upon. If we were to take ordinary understanding for our guide to understanding anything, be it the Earth's movement, the sun's power source, or the secret of heredity, we should be in a sorry and benighted state indeed.”

You are missing the authors’ greater point, which is that in this area of the mind and all those things that makes people feel they are different from a tad-pole, such as free-will, choosing, apprehending beauty, love, the good, the true, and the very sense of their difference from other biological life goes completely against a naturalist understanding of what it means to be human. You need to address why it is that our own view of ourselves is so “astonishingly” different than the philosophical explanation given by the naturalist. And remember, it is not a “scientific” explanation, but a philosophical one based upon an interpretation of the data—we need to know why it has to be interpreted your way, without citing your prior philosophical beliefs.
At last, you touch on an interesting question- why do we have this customary view? There is a straight evolutionary and practical explanation, which is that we (and all organisms) evolved to engage with the outside world, not with our inner world. Our senses are honed to accurately perceive our immediate physical and social surroundings in the interests of survival. There is little need to know how our internal operations are generated, other than having the vague sensations of pain and pleasure that indicate that things are going badly or well. When we eventually create complex (even conscious) robots, their high-level programs will doubtless have similar characteristics, concentrating on external interactions rather than wasting time on knowing whether chip register 24523 has communicated with memory register 89629.

So our sense of consciousness seems to us magical and perfect, even though a bit of experimentation can show that it is quite a hodgepodge of ignoring 95% of what goes on and splicing together the rest with appropriate time-shifts into a plausible video-experience. That is why TV works, for example, since our eye/brain processing is slow enough to see its jagged line-scanning as continuous motion. It is also why we sense a complete visual field, even though it actually has a big hole near the middle. Our sense of the world is smooth because, by practical / evolutionary argument, its operations must not get in the way of actually sensing the external world, however defective its mechanics are. It would be fatal to be spending time monitoring our senses (or, god forbid, our inner processing), rather than monitoring what is actually interesting ... the world.

There is no question that we are different from tadpoles- in scale, but not in kind. Tadpoles have likes and dislikes that guide their lives, and senses that accurately portray what is going on around them. It is not the most interesting life, perhaps, but they may indeed have senses of beauty as well as morals. They have a discriminating appreciation of mating partners, which in my book counts as a sense of beauty, and insofar as they have social lives, they restrict their behavior in order to socialize with others, thus expressing moral senses, where presumably it is frowned upon to eat each other, for instance.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“And, of course there is the physical evidence of complete coincidence between minds and brains- the direct effects that strokes, surgery, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and drugs have on both coincidentally. Indeed it is ironic that these authors choose to attack naturalism on this weakest of fronts, where research is rapidly closing in on detailed brain/mind mechanisms. It is a classic "god of the gaps" approach to theism that stands little chance of surviving the decade, let alone the century.”

Again you miss exactly what aspect of mental activity the authors are speaking to, which is choice, apprehending and believing based upon other beliefs. No one is suggesting that the physical and spiritual can be divided in the way you are assuming here. It appears you were looking for a ridiculous argument like, “We think the soul is located in the left quadrant of the cerebral cortex.” This would be similar to talking about God as if such a being were just a really- really powerful human-like creature (Superman) living on a planet somewhere called heaven and if we just had our telescope turned to the right place, we could see God! We see here the same comic-book understanding of the soul.

The authors readily admit that this is a mystery (dualism, whether Cartesian or Non-Cartesian), but every honest scientist admits many mysteries to this universe and especially as to humans. So what? The authors point to a dualism posited by Kant, which simply located the soul as present “as a whole in [the] body as a whole in every part of it.” (Pg. 66) So, in fact, the areas the authors chose to attack naturalism are indeed their weakest, but they are each weak—only in different ways.
The activities of "choice, apprehending, and believing based upon other beliefs" are exactly the objects of current neuroscience. The effects of physical and chemical perturbations to the brain, which alter moral, economic, and other forms of choice, testify eloquently to their physical substrate. The mystery of dualism is belied by its complete poverty of either explanation or evidence, other than the personal sense of it, which is accounted for (though not explained) as I outlined above. So as with other mysteries that theists insist upon, such as god, miracles, and divine trinities ... they are more phantasms than mysteries. True scientific mysteries are characterized by problematic evidence, such as the equivalence of the speed of light in all directions, which stumped Newtonian models of physics. The problem of consciousness has only one piece of evidence indicating that materialism is insufficient- the way it feels/seems from the inside. All other evidence from neuroscience, logic, pharmacology, physiology, etc. converges in the opposite direction.

Indeed, a supernaturalist might claim that any evidence that arrives in this natural world is automatically skewed to naturalist forms of understanding and can not count- a sort of catch-22 that discounts any detectable phenomenon as evidence. Thankfully, that is not a problem for the naturalist.

I might even suggest that the whole book would have been better replaced by an exposition of the simple radio metaphor, where theists posit that even though a radio (brain) can be damaged in many ways to make us think that its programs arise from within itself, its signals actually come from outside, just as the brain might be getting signals from god, or the soul might be some kind of extra-mechanistic signalling device, etc.. Such a discussion would be been far more clear than what these authors offered. This could be addressed by a non-theist by the absence of any evidence for external signals or the design of the brain for their reception, or indeed for any signaling mode (other than magical) that might be relevant. (Unfortunately, all these arguments have a negative character and are not entirely compelling, since we do not have a complete mechanistic theory of how the brain works, yet.)

(Following my discussion of how consciousness follows, rather than leads, other brain activities)
Okay, let’s apply such a view to the process of your book review: So your review is just a non-purposeful, random, “caboose” like rambling, neither here nor there, of a person who believes that conscious will (which he would need for a review like this to even happen) is an “illusion.” Since you are not the “master of your own house” I can assume this review then is perhaps something you really don’t even believe…perhaps you wrote it in a ghost-like trance…you tried to force your fingers into typing the exact opposite, but to no avail. Now, we both know that is not what happened and yet, for you to make your case, you have to speak, act, and think as if the authors’ views are truer to reality than your own.

And you cite Freud? He is seen as an influential popular figure now (a celebrity), not in any serious scientific way.
Freud is still appreciated in just the way I cited- he established the idea and power of the unconscious, even if his detailed theories of its composition and modes of treatment are no longer followed. You understand the concept, I assume? The concept that most of what goes on in our heads is not known consciously? That our thoughts first incubate at various levels outside consciousness before arriving there in a blaze of either glory or shame? Whether one views it as a caboose or a conning tower, consciousness is a small part of what goes on in our heads, and clearly has to interact with many other processes in some way, sending or receiving data.

At any rate, the idea is not that my thoughts don't exist, or are random, but that consciousness is not where they take shape. Consciousness reports them, but does not form them. Surely that should be understandable to someone who believes that thoughts come from extra-terrestrial sources? The question is whether we can, by technical means, determine where they really do come from, or whether we renounce (and ignore, as the book did) the entire enterprise and go on spinning empty theories of "powers" or "capacities" to think/believe, imputed to nebulous "non-spatial" entities.

What you are forgetting is that yours is the argument from ignorance. You don’t know why or how, in a strictly natural sense, consciousness and the mind operate the way they do. You think it will be reduced to an entirely mapable physical construct one day, but until then you posit and argue from…ignorance. However the authors are suggesting that the soul is the “how” as to these dilemmas and since they do not start with your presupposition that the material is all there is- they are not making an argument from ignorance—but from experience, philosophy, theology, logic, science, and history. To admit that one possible solution is a mystery, not reducible, is not the same as arguing from ignorance. Your argument is: “I don’t know, but it has to be reducible to a physical-material cause…because I’m committed to philosophical naturalism.” Their argument is: “We think we know—it is the classical view (a soul-we are more than physical) of such matters—and it indeed is a mystery.” So is love, evil, the good, the true, and the beautiful. So is life. So what? To recognize such is hardly to argue from ignorance. In fact, it is to argue from wisdom.
Very well put. But consider how many other times the classical view of "more than physical" phenomena has actually been proven out. The answer is never. The second question is where the currently available evidence leads. There are endless cases of specific damage to the brain that result in specific defects in perception, action, morality, language, and other mental functions. Chopping off one's head also has a routinely definitive effect. There is simply no other plausible avenue to analyze mental functions than by studying the brain. No dis-embodied intelligence has ever been demonstrated, except by charlatans. And even our most fervent, drug-induced experiences of divinity are never corroborated the morning after in any concrete way, other than by the confabulation of miracles that seem so very scarce nowadays. There is no doubt that we can think and feel amazing things, just no evidence that they signify anything disembodied, whether consciousness or divinity.

(A quote from my prior review ...)
“Why do values need to be normative at all?”

Yes, that is exactly what Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and serial killers asked themselves. And why do ecological values need to be normative? And why should how we treat animals be normative? Of course, you want your values to be normative, you simply can’t tell us why and when you attempt to, we learn that there really are no such things as morals or values—there are only assertions of power.
No comment.

As noted by Fagerstrom: “Darwinism does not provide us with values about whether [a particular state of affairs] is a better or worse state of affairs. Period!” (Pg. 91)

One might respond that Naturalism is different than Darwinism. However that will not do. They both lead to a world where “better or worse” are meaningless. And if one responds, “Well, Darwinism or Naturalism might not provide values, but we can from our own imaginations,” he still has not told us why the values produced by the imaginations of the Nazis could not or should not be normative. Why should we resist those values? In fact, he has removed any way for us to talk about what “normative” would even mean
I never said that Naturalism per se is related to morals, actually. Morals come from our study of ourselves, our desires and needs, and whatever reason and foresight we can bring to bear on reconciling them all (especially with those of other people). Naturalists are typically also humanists, since they do not believe in extraterrestrial sources for human morals, or any of the other fabulous sources that have been prophesied over the years. Indeed, they do not believe in an end to history or a coming judgment, whether rapturous or apocalyptic- only that our future is in our own hands.

It is funny to hear theists prate that the origin of morals is in their authority, in their books and in their apparently not very omnipotent god. That they are the only valid judges of others- that anyone who disagrees with them has no basis to judge others, and moreover should be compared to Nazis. Have they no faith ... in their fellow man? Apparently not, even after such an election as we have just had! Religious leaders preached hate and fear in this election, especially against gay marriage in California. It should be deeply shameful.

What a disappointing review. You failed to grapple with this book in any significant way. Unlike the authors who addressed naturalism in a charitable, fair, and professional way, you chose the exact opposite route in your review. Very bad form.

What the authors were discussing in their book and the entire conversation around these things require, at a minimum, some background, some presumed familiarity with the philosophical, historical, theoretical, and scientific context to the areas under discussion. Most of us simply need to read more, take some classes, get out and talk to more people who differ and have different perspectives. But the greater issue is one of sensibility. Our wills, our emotions, our choices, our loves are involved in these matters. There is a mystery as to why one person might see a man smile as his son scores a touchdown and reflect, “There must be causal electrical pulses going from eye to brain to facial muscles happening” and a different person reflecting that, “The father sees perhaps himself again, or maybe what he wanted to be, in his son now, and he loves him so.” In other words, what do we believe is really happening at such a moment and what can it be reduced to? It is here, in the area of sensibility, aesthetics, and beauty where we see the greatest difference between the two of us (and Christians and Naturalists as a whole) and for which there is no quick or obvious remedy.
This is the conclusion, and what can one say? I found the book tedious, incoherent, and laughable. Scientific context? That was one area where the authors offered nothing.. the very field where souls should be investigated, in comparison or conjunction with real brain science, the authors offered pathetic, completely untethered arguments about whether the soul is point-like or extended, its "capacities", "powers", and the figurative ruminations of Paul of Tarsus. I was incredulous that anyone would have such low intellectual standards as to publish it.

There is indeed an issue of sensibility here, one that is critically important. This book was not about our "loves", it was about reason- reasons to believe in one or another model of reality, either naturalistic or supernatural, written in a putatively scholarly way in order to persuade the intellect, not the heart. On this count they failed miserably, not even trying to engage the leading intellectual findings about the actual brain, but focusing what fire they have on their fellow-philosopher Jaegwon Kim, who may not even be a naturalist.

I'd suggest that philosophers have had nothing interesting to say about the field of cognitive science for decades, if not centuries. This field, like others that have anything to do with the natural world, has been handed over to science for resolution based on actual data, (for instance to Francis Crick, as you cite above), as was the case with the natural philosophies of atoms, of ethers, of vitalism, of diseases, of celestial bodies, etc. At best, philosophers (like other philosophers of science) are following the science closely and considering what it means for the old questions they are familiar with and what it means for the lay person (John Searle and Oliver Sacks come to mind). At worst, they retreat into ancient formulations and abstruse terminology, playing games with each other that bear no reflection of current knowledge, and deserve prompt obscurity.

I suspect what you are trying to say is similar to the perennial notion that science drains wonder, beauty, and sacredness from the world and from ourselves. As a fan of Carl Jung, I certainly understand the attraction of holding things, experiences, and each other to be numinous and sacred. I just fail to see how these can be joined to a failed model of reality- one that simply is not true. Taking biology as my prime example, the truth of billions of years of painstaking evolution, ramification and suffering far outstrips the story of god whipping up the plants, fish, and beasts over a few days, and then scheduling everything for a do-over a couple thousand years later. The true story (as testified by every nature show) is far more likely to inspire dedication to the precious and beautiful life of this planet.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A new NATO

Has NATO gotten too big? Let's make it bigger! Has NATO lost its purpose? Let's give it a newer, bigger purpose, and a new name!

About the only thing I liked about John McCain's foreign policy proposals was an international league of democracies that would put a bit more muscle behind democratic principles around the globe. It would invite only real democracies to join. His version seemed to be a replacement for the UN and a stick to beat over the head of Russia and China, playing a game of social ostracism.

The fact is that international relations are still chaotic and lawless, stuck in a Victorian age of nationalist competition. While international crises mount ever higher in number, complexity, and significance, the international system is unequipped to deal with them. The UN has proven to be utterly incapable of taking action on any controversial issue, and is even corrupted itself to the point of betraying the very ideals that it putatively upholds.

What I would propose is a transformation of NATO into an ethics-based international group with broad membership and representative governance, and with military power to bear on critical international issues- essentially a constabulary body. This group would not supersede the UN, since it would not be universal, and would have stringent membership criteria open to countries that achieve certain levels of human rights, transparency, good governance, etc. A re-naming might also be in order, such as to "GETO"- the global ethics treaty organization.

NATO was founded to counter the Russia of the cold war- to seal Allied gains made in World War II by a strong Western military alliance where all powers pledged to defend each other in the context of classic maneuver warfare (and eventually, with nuclear weapons as well). This purpose has evaporated, and now NATO is a feel-good organization that promotes the inclusion of various Eastern European countries into a vague sense of European-ness, and annoys Russia deeply with every new member. This dynamic has to stop. Relations with Russia are too important to be playing keep-away with an almost meaningless clique reminiscent of junior high school.

NATO has to be retooled and fundamentally rethought so that it is not in an automatically adversarial position vs Russia, and so that it gains a sustaining purpose in line with the challenges of today. The Euro-Russian landmass has calmed down enough that we no longer need to maintain the Metternichian alliances and balance of power strategies of yore. There are far more pressing matters at hand, such as climate change, economic meltdowns, failed states and rogue terrorist organizations. Thus this would be a good time to pivot NATO from a European defense organization into a global constabulary organization, based on explicit and modern ethical principles.

Glimmers of this change are already afoot, with NATO's first military efforts in the former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan. The legitimacy of these actions was widely accepted (except by Russia in the former case, mostly for reasons of ethnic sympathy). This legitimacy is crucial, and can be increased by making NATO into a more open organization. NATO also has a far greater ability to act, and greater effectiveness, than any version of UN force, such as its peace keeping units. The UN system, with its ossified security council, deference to sovereignty, and excessive need for consensus, is a perfectly fine place to discuss international affairs and to take unexceptional actions such as famine relief and disease eradication. But it is structurally unequal to serious policing issues. Only when it lends its aegis to another country's actions, such as in the Korean or first Iraq wars, does significant action result, but the legitimacy of such free-agenting is not very high, and nor is its consistency or effectiveness.

The key to this new GETO organization would be a governance index, which rates each country yearly for its adherence to various ethical norms, like human rights, rule of law, political transparency, media transparency, sponsorship of external terrorism and instability, and corruption (many more could be imagined, such as status of women, minorities, environmental stewardship, etc.). Indexes of this kind are currently produced by many non-governmental organizations (NGO's) as well as the US state department. Those from NGO's would be used, flexibly changing sources from year to year as various NGO's gained credibility or developed better research abilities. Their independence from governments would play an important role in keeping the system as inbiassed as possible. Variation in index composition would not be critically important, since many of these measures tend to correlate with each other. The selection of indexes would be up the GETO membership, as would the weighting scheme by which a composite governance index is arrived at. As the values and critical issues of the international system change, the benchmarks of membership can change as well.

Is this kind of system necessarily biased, since all values are subjective? Not really- all countries pay lip service to human rights and elevated values. All countries subscribe to the basic UN documents which express these values in elevated tones. The problem is that none are penalized for not realizing them, and membership and voting powers are given to all, willy nilly.

This kind of evaluation scheme for countries would have several uses for GETO. Suppose it uses a scale of 1 to 100, where 100 is best. First would be a threshold for inclusion of new members, say at score 70. Next would be a threshold for expulsion of current members, say at score 60. There would be no limit to membership- if all countries of the world attained good government and high rankings, then all would be members (alternatively, countries might be ranked in order and only half allowed in as members at any one time, creating perpetual competition for better governance scores). There would also not be any extraneous measurements, like for democracy per se, or economic success- this is an organization predicated purely on ethical behavior. Lastly, there would be a threshold for intervention against a non-member country's sovereignty, say 10. Intervention would not be mandatory, but could be undertaken with a voting scheme among the membership. Such voting might take place in proportion to population, perhaps multiplied by the member's governance index score minus 60 (thus making automatic the removal of low-scoring members). The point would be to construct balanced representation and true legitimacy for GETO's mandate, which is a global policing role.

Such a scoring system should bring in the current members of NATO without problems, as well as democratic developed nations world-wide. It might leave Russia and China on the fence. Even if they were members, they would not have veto power over policing actions, as they do now in the UN security council. Non-member states would be welcome to participate in most aspects of GETO operations (except voting) by invitation, even giving military assistance if it proved convenient to GETO to employ them alongside its own forces.

There is far more to policing the globe than attending to states in identifiable free-fall, such as perhaps Zimbabwe or Afghanistan. There are also border disputes, incursions, proxy wars, ethnic cleansing, and countless other problems. GETO would not aim to solve all conflict, but be a backstop to address outrageous suffering, requiring a supermajority of some kind to take action. It would then separate warring parties, create buffer zones, administer countries or parts of countries on a temporary basis, begin social and physical reconstruction, and begin grass-roots civic and election processes, building local governance from the ground up, not from the top down.

The example of Darfur is most pressing- we are paralyzed out of a lack of institutional resources, stymied by a few corrupt vetoes from stopping a contemporary horror. The UN has been unable to generate consensus, NATO has no jurisdiction or interest, and the African Union has neither the will nor the capacity to be effective. GETO would easily identify Sudan as a failed state (or at least a state that is failing an identifiable population), and step in to cordon off warring parties, carving up the territory of Sudan as needed to restore calm. These partitions would then last as long as either party wanted them to, becoming new nations if they proved durable and cohesive enough.

One problem with this GETO scheme is that it might promote a moral hazard- the profusion of splinter movements eager to be backed by GETO into separate mini-nations of their own, on the basis of little more than ethnic hatred or greed for local natural resources. Would California be interested in seceding from the US? Or would Quebec wish to break from Canada? More realistically, there are countless ethnic communities in countries such as Georgia, Iran, or Turkey that would love to take advantage of an offer of intervention and protection from GETO. How are the irremediable conflicts to be distinguished from those that are opportunistic, and how should GETO treat nations plagued with secessionist groups, including Iraq and India? The governance index of the host country will be one important guide- if they have good governance (especially if they have significant local decentralized control), it is unlikely that a secessionist community will have to resort to arms or terrorism, but will have peaceful means for self-determination.

A profusion of minor countries, as has taken shape in the Balkans, is not necessarily a problem at all. It is only an issue in a Darwinian international order, where the big eat the small and the small need Mafia-like protection. Luxembourg and Lichtenstein have survived splendidly in the modern European system. If they wished, they could merge with another country of their own free will, participating in a dynamic international system where change comes from orderly self-determination rather from the competing imperialist impulses of great powers. In order to grow, great powers would need to be attractive rather than ruthless.

The case of Chechnya is instructive- it is unlikely that GETO would have the power to intervene against Russia, but the need to do so is readily apparent. Russia has waged a campaign of unrelenting brutality, scorching Chechnya to a cinder to save its own military self-esteem. It is simply a moral necessity to cordon off such territories when possible to prevent unspeakable atrocities and suffering. If such a system of GETO-sponsored intervention raises the power of separatist groups vis-a-vis central powers, so be it. This re-balancing of power would be a way of granting human rights of self-determination to previously oppressed populations, in turn encouraging more tolerant central governance and correcting the hastily-drawn maps of long ago. In this proposal, actions against a GETO member state would not have any special encumbrance, subject only to the regular voting rules and to a minimalist principle to only contain the problem and separate warring parties, not to threaten the host country if it does not present additional serious governance problems.

Conversely, the separated area would not be left to its own devices to devolve into crime and mini-despotism (also e.g. Chechnya), but would be strongly managed by a temporary GETO mandate, encouraging only serious separatist movements to engage in such a risk. GETO would be experienced in running small governments, unlike what the US has attempted in Iraq, and would engage in an orderly process to bring the territory out of receivership as soon as possible.

Afghanistan presents a case in point. It is unrealistic to think that Afghanistan will become a western-style democracy on a timetable consistent with outside management/involvement. Indeed it is hard to imagine how an outside power, however benevolent, can make progress towards any kind of modern government there. The current NATO occupation/rebuilding effort needs to take thorough stock of the materials at hand and indigenous desires and culture. The culture is heavily tribal, so the best approach would have been to put NATO in central control for a temporary period (as a neutral party) while sorting out how to upgrade the governance of each tribal unit (empowering individuals over their customary warlords), and how to construct a federal system that does not put each tribal unit at each other's throat when NATO leaves. Cultural engagement and judgment is essential, as we learned so belatedly in Iraq. But approaching the task from an orderly international position of legitimacy would also be extremely helpful.

The GETO proposal is a mechanism to renovate and rejuvenate NATO to face contemporary problems, while advancing global goals of improved governance and happiness. These happen to be identical with US goals of a peaceful and prosperous international system, but achieving them will require surrendering some measure of sovereignty ourselves, to carefully constructed international structures with legitimacy, durability, and power.